State, regional teachers of the year speak to concerns, rewards of profession

Freebird McKinney, North Carolina’s 2018 teacher of the year.

Before you begin teaching in your class ― learn.

Learn the stories of each individual in that classroom, get to know the challenges and talents of your pupils, and understand their perspectives. That was the repeated message from the state and regional teachers of the year to an assembly of some 250 Western Carolina University teacher education students during a presentation in the Grandroom of the A.K. Hinds University Center on Thursday, Feb. 28.

“What we are doing is building intentional, authentic relationships with each one of our students,” said Freebird McKinney, North Carolina’s 2018 teacher of the year. “Both of us feel very wholeheartedly that the better our students know who we are as human beings, the stronger our relationships in the classroom, and that will transcend beyond the walls of our classrooms.”

Tomorrow’s teachers take notes as they listen to remarks by current teachers of the year.

Each year, the Burroughs Wellcome Fund partners with the N.C. Department of Public Instruction as a major sponsor of the North Carolina Teacher of the Year Program. In addition to providing recognition to individuals for their dedication and success with inspiring students of all backgrounds and abilities to learn, the program facilitates events such as the WCU presentation and other speaking engagements.

Teachers must recognize the needs of students beyond reading, writing and arithmetic, said Julie Pittman, 2018 teacher of the year for Western North Carolina. “I don’t work on lesson plans so much for the first week or two (of the new school year) and instead concentrate on finding what I can about who the students are,” she said. “You don’t know what the kids are coming into the classroom with, the baggage that they can’t leave at the door, whether they’ve had breakfast or not or any of the other issues they are dealing with.”

McKinney and Pittman both related their own personal struggles from their days in public schools and the effect it had on their academic performance.

McKinney is a social studies teacher at Williams High School in Burlington and an adjunct instructor at Elon University. Pittman is an English language arts teacher at R-S Central High School in Rutherford County and a former adjunct at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill.

“They both gave great advice on how you could connect to your students on a personal level and how that really affects them in the class,” said Brittany Sujet of Gilbert, Illinois, a senior in WCU’s teacher education program. “They demonstrated how important it is to take the time to build that relationship. I think that is a successful strategy for guiding students through a curriculum, and I plan to use those techniques.”

Julie Pittman, 2018 teacher of the year for Western North Carolina.

A fellow teacher education student in attendance agreed. “I want to teach abroad, so I think the part about learning a student’s background and understanding it, to know their cultural, socio-economic background, is super important,” said Noah Reese, a senior from Swannanoa. “It’s going to help no matter where you are, as a teacher.”

McKinney and Pittman also lauded anyone who chooses teaching as a profession, with McKinney saying society should consider teachers as not only leaders in the classroom, but also in the community, and there needs to be an understanding that a teacher is a singular important person for the local community, state, nation and ultimately the world.

McKinney confirmed that his name really is “Freebird.” He related how a succession of step-parents and last names while growing up left him with an identity gap of sorts, one that he corrected before his wedding by going to the local courthouse. There, he legally changed his name to Bryan Freebird McKinney, formally taking on a nickname drawn from a surname of a former stepfather.

WCU’s origins date back to 1889 as a school for teacher training, and its School of Teaching and Learning is nationally recognized for excellence. The 2019 WNC teacher of the year is WCU alumnus Caesar Campana, a teacher at Hayesville High School.

The event was sponsored by WCU’s College of Education and Allied Professions. For more information, call the college at 828-227-7311.